Brian Lenihan Biography — In Calm and Crisis

This Brian Lenihan biography is more a series of reflections and memories than a biography in the true sense of that word. Although some criticised Lenihan’s decisions as Ireland’s Finance Minister, his dignity won widespread respect.

For the most part this collection of essays reflects that admiration. The essayists are by Lenihan’s former colleagues. Family and friends recall personal, political and professional aspects of his life and career, particularly his final years.

Lenihan became Finance Minister at a time of intense difficulty for the Irish economy. He faced extraordinary pressures compounded by personal difficulties when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Questions from that period remain.  Although the recollections in this biography provide interesting insights, essentially, this is a collection of personal tributes.

Contributors to this Brian Lenihan biography

There are brief contributions by Jim Flaherty, Former Canadian Finance Minister and Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister. Mary O’Rourke, Paul Gallagher provide personal recollections while Eamon Ryan’s contribution is more circumstantial.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution is by former Irish Finance Minister, Ray McSharry. In a chapter titled ‘The Poisoned Chalice’ McSharry says that Lenihan and Cowen saved the euro. However, they failed to use the leverage that gave them, McSharry suggests.

“Incidentally, I should add that the current Government is also under-estimating the leverage that our membership of the EU still gives Ireland. I think Ireland should be taking a tougher stance to bring about a write-off on our bank debts. We should not forget that the European Council requires unanimity to effect change in major policy areas. I think that some night that our vote is required we should insist that the price of our vote is a deal on our banking debts.”

Other contributors include Alan Ahearne Patrick Honahan, Brian Murphy, Cathy Herbert, John Mullen, Martin Mansergh, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Harmon Murtagh, John Trethowan and Jillian Van Turnhout. The introduction is by Noel Whelan.

Striking a balance for the greater good

The Appendices in this Brian Lenihan biography include Dáil tributes following Lenihan’s death. Also included is the text of Lenihan’s Michael Collins Commemorative Lecture at Beal na Bláth on 22 August 2010.

In that speech, Lenihan said “the job of Government is to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of individual groups and the greater good.” Arguably, that’s precisely where government appears to get things generally wrong by having too much regard for the great and the good, too little for the greater good.

Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis is edited by Brian Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Noel Whelan and published by the Irish Academic Press, 2014. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Irish Cancer Society.

Auster memoir continues in a Report from the Interior

Just over a year ago I reviewed Paul Auster’s Winter Journal on and reflected on Auster’s ability to explore universal experience by focusing on the individual. Auster’s latest book, Report from the Interior, takes his exploration a step further by focusing on memories of his inner life from childhood, through his teens and early twenties, not because Auster believes that that he is in some way unique or exceptional but rather because he believes that he isn’t — that his experience is similar to that of every man — and therefore universal.

This raises interesting issues such as the extent to which memory is reliable and unique and how it is shaped or influenced by later remembrances.

While there is a sweetness in Auster’s recollection of childhood beliefs or the confusion and loneliness of his early twenties, this focus on the universal occasionally skirts close to the banal — but perhaps that is the point.

Report from the Interior consists of four sections:

  1. Report from the Interior which recalls childhood and adolescent memories using the second person voice;
  2. Two Blows to the Head which describes two movies that influenced Auster;
  3. Time Capsule comprising extracts from letters written by Auster to his first wife before their marriage;
  4. Album, a collection of photographs illustrating events contemporaneous with the first three sections.

Auster’s addresses the first section to his younger self using the second person — ‘you’ — as he did in the Winter Journal. Perhaps because inner thoughts are more intimate or individual than physical experience, this use of the second person is unsettling and occasionally distracting. Who is ‘you’? Auster himself? You, the reader? You, the universal man?

The second section, ‘Two Blows to the Head’, sets out descriptions of the movies The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang which are skilfully written and very visual.

Then Auster moves on to draw on emotive letters he wrote to his first wife before their marriage in the section entitled ‘Time Capsule’. This section reveals a somewhat depressed, lonely young man who is none the less developing growing confidence in his writing ability.

The book closes out with an Album of photographs drawn from various sources that illustrate the reminiscences set out in the earlier sections.

Readers who are of Auster’s generation — particularly those who were bookish children — are likely to find many resonances with their own childhood memories in Report from the Interior  

Report from the Interior is published by Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 9780805098570. [Disclosure: an advance copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review].

Margaret Thatcher : Harris’s biography sheds light on what made her tick

Friends were surprised when they heard I was reading a Margaret Thatcher biography. But for readers of my generation, Margaret Thatcher is an iconic figure. Selected as the Conservative candidate for Finchley in 1958, the next twenty years saw her stature grow. In 1979 following the Conservatives’ election victory she became the first woman British Prime Minister.

In common with many women who break through the glass ceiling, Thatcher believed in succeeding through merit. She thought other women could achieve what she had through hard work, persistence and sheer determination.

Her life story — particularly her public life — is well known and there are few surprises in Robin Harris’s well-researched and documented Margaret Thatcher biography.

Harris works through Thatcher’s early life in Grantham explaining the influence of her father, the role religion played in the household, her early years in the Conservative party.

Period as Prime Minister

The events of her period as Prime Minister are then covered in detail with some illuminating insights into her leadership and thinking for example, her views on war as evidenced during the Falklands crisis.

Harris worked closely with Thatcher from 1985. He drafted speeches and advised on policy.  Consequently, he brings insider insights to this biography. His research is meticulous and the chapters in Not for Turning are richly annotated. He provides an extensive bibliography with interesting observations on the sources referenced.

Sympathetic but not blind to Thatcher’s faults, it is Harris’s insights into her personal traits that I found most interesting. For example, women readers particularly may be struck by her preoccupation with the ordinary challenges of managing family relationships — including the financial troubles of her adult children — general financial worries, health issues, concerns about her husband and so on. Likewise her struggle to keep her weight under control which saw her choose to drink whiskey and soda because it has fewer calories than her preferred gin and tonic.

Late career

However, it Harris’s insights into the latter part of Thatcher’s career that are perhaps the most interesting. The facts from the period are perhaps less well known. He discusses the years after she left office and her subsequent declining health. I was particularly interested in his take on Thatcher’s regard for Tony Blair and her apparent sympathy for the controversial General Pinochet.

Harris’s treatment of Thatcher’s decline — her health issues and the indignities of age — is sensitive and empathetic.

At the outset of the book, Harris explains that his objective in writing Not for Turning was to describe what Margaret Thatcher was like. He sought to explain what she was trying to do and why and to assess the consequences. In my view, he has achieved this.

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris is published by St Martin’s Press. ISBN 9781250047151. [Disclosure: An Advance Reader’s Copy was provided by Netgalley].